Second impressions

No band could live up to the hype that was laid on the Strokes, so now they are surviving the backlash

May 25, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Sure you've heard of Nikolai Fraiture's band.

In 2001, he and his four New York buddies -- guitarist Nick Valensi, vocalist Julian Casablancas, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. and drummer Fabrizio Moretti -- were The Most Talked-About group that year. Collectively known as the Strokes, they were brazenly called "the saviors of rock" by some critics. The notorious hype machine better known as the British press led the bandwagon with a fervor nearly matching that behind Oasis in the early '90s. The Strokes' listless songs (bristling with snotty attitude) and taut, unadorned instrumentation were compared to celebrated New York rock outfits Television and Velvet Underground.

But four years and three albums later (First Impressions of Earth, the band's latest effort, appeared in January), the buzz has tapered off significantly. "We were like the eye of the storm," says Fraiture, the Strokes' bassist, who's calling from the road in Montreal. The quintet will be one of the headliners at the HFStival on Sunday. "It happened all around us. But we didn't feel like we had to live up to others' expectations."

After the Strokes' 2001 debut, Is This It, sold 2 million copies worldwide, the inevitable backlash began. Because some of the members came from privileged, private-prep-school backgrounds in Manhattan (lead singer Casablancas is the son of Elite Modeling Agency founder John Casablancas), the band was written off by some critics as a bunch of spoiled slackers. The Strokes' early reputation for sloppy shows certainly didn't help abate such accusations. Also at the time, the press tended to focus too much attention on Moretti's relationship with Drew Barrymore.

After wrapping up an exhaustive world tour behind Is This It, the Strokes followed the acclaimed debut with 2003's Room On Fire. Though fuller and, at times, thoughtfully layered, the album didn't catch on like its predecessor. "The record was rushed," says Fraiture, 27. "There was still a lot of stuff musically we wanted to do."

On First Impressions, the Strokes set out to show their true colors as musicians. It was recorded in the band's Red Carpet Studios in New York.

"On this album, we were more open to experimenting with our instruments," says the soft-spoken musician. "It's a lot more of a unified group effort."

The results are mixed. But the Strokes' new album diligently expands their musical scope, infusing their shimmery sound with interesting textures. "It was more about challenging ourselves on our instruments," Fraiture explains, "locking down difficult chords and sneaking in some jazzy stuff without being too weird."

Not all of the songs hold together well, as Casablancas' lyrical jadedness wears thin after a while. On "Ask Me Anything," he snarls, "I've got nothing to say." And as the CD plays on, you start to believe it. The band still manages to lock a strong groove here and there. ("You Only Live Once" is a highlight.) But, overall, the album feels belabored.

While touring to support First Impressions of Earth, which debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's pop album charts earlier this year, Fraiture says the band isn't planning a new album.

"Right now, we don't have any new songs," he says. "But there's never any set limitations once we start recording. When we go into the studio, we always try to progress. That's our main goal: to make one song better than the next."

Maybe on the next project, the Strokes will reach that desired level of consistency.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

HFStival information

When:

11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where:

Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Tickets:

$53-$108 per day, available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com

Information:

hfstival.com

Saturday lineup:

Kanye West, Cypress Hill, Matisyahu, Rise Against, Panic! At the Disco, Atmosphere, Jimmie's Chicken Shack, The Misfits, Rock Kills Kid, 2Cents, Dropping Daylight, Downtown Singapore, Too Late The Hero, Anti-Flag, OK Go, Nico Vega, The Working Title, Voodoo Blue, Cute Is What We Aim For

Sunday lineup:

Counting Crows, Dashboard Confessional, Coheed and Cambria, the Strokes, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, AFI, H.I.M., Matchbook Romance, Boy Sets Fire, Flyleaf, Augustana, People in Planes, The Fixx, Forty Acres, Love Arcade, As Fast As, Kill Hannah, Damone, Riverboat Gamblers

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